Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Keeping track of Labour's performance - part three

Every time we've come to look at the UK Labour Party's polling and by-election performance in recent months, it's not been a pretty sight. We've basically had to shake our heads sadly and move away from the prone and stricken figure of a once-great party. If you're a Labour member or supporter, historically-informed and data-driven projections have for months painted a very ugly picture indeed: of Labour losing scores of seats at the next General Election, and perhaps being comprehensively routed in a manner it hasn't suffered since 1931 and 1935. Those numbers seemed to stagnate, rather than improving, as time went by.

Now things might be looking a little bit better, because the governing Conservatives' implosion over a very ill-received Budget, Tata Steel's difficulties in South Wales (and the Government's handling of that issue), party splits over the forthcoming European Union referendum and revelations about Prime Minister David Cameron's own personal finances have all blown up in one spectacular - and rather epic - month of crises. The Conservatives large poll leads suddenly seemed to hit a wall in March, heading down from eight or nine percentage points to just two or three. Not exactly a transformation, as we'll discuss in a moment, but certainly a break from their polling walkovers of the last year.

At the same time, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has started to look rather more comfortable in his own skin. Since the nadir of failing to mention Iain Duncan Smith's name when questioning Mr Cameron about Mr Duncan Smith's resignation, he's sharped up his act. A forensic list of questions about the Government's ludicrous forced academisation of English schools gave him his best Prime Minister's Questions to date (admittedly quite a low bar); a dry and self-deprecating seam of humour has begun to emerge, as it did when Mr Corbyn praised the Queen on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday. Although his personal ratings are still pretty bad, they've improved, mostly off the back of (the remaining ranks of) Labour voters revising their opinions of him a little: his numbers are still worse than many past Leaders of the Opposition, but they are no longer particularly atrocious.

But how to see this in context? What does this gap actually mean in terms of past history - and the next General Election? Well, we promised last time to keep an eye on just this question, and that's what we're doing now - while Labour look a little bit more chipper, and the Conservatives more downcast, than they have since Ed Miliband looked as if he was a realistic challenger for the keys to No. 10.

Start here: Labour's poll ratings are still awful. They are worse than those for any past period of modern Labour Opposition apart from Neil Kinnock's travails in 1984 and 1988 (above). To be doing about as well as Mr Kinnock, busy at the time trying to hold his party together as Mrs Thatcher's ideological revolution rolled over Labour - threatening to crush the life out of it - is not exactly a triumph. As usual, we do have to acknowledge here that polling methods have changed out of all recognition since the 1980s, and even since Ed Miliband's period as Labour's leader (though by nowhere near as much as you might think, at least in the latter case). Even so, the direction of travel and the orders of magnitude aren't particularly in dispute: Labour is now doing better than during the winter, but still not very well. It's at about the level it reached in the 1980s - competitive in midterm, perhaps, but apparently unlikely to win any national elections. 

Now, okay, polling's under a cloud at the moment. If pollsters do well at the EU referendum, perhaps they'll be let out of the doghouse, but for now a lot of people will just say 'ah, the polls', and switch off. They would be very unwise to do so. That's because we also have a good check on the polls in the case of local authority by-elections, held most Thursdays and giving us a handy check on polling via tens of thousands of votes being placed in real ballot boxes every quarter. 

Here there's still more difficult news for Labour to absorb. In this calendar year, there has been almost no swing at all in these, as measured by vote changes since the last Parliament. There has, in fact, been a very small (0.5% or so) swing from Labour towards the Conservatives in those twenty contests from which we can measure Labour and Conservative vote changes, and which were last fought in 2015. Since the local election share of the vote in 2015 (as opposed to the Parliamentary election numbers) saw the Conservatives ahead at 36% to Labour's 32%, that puts Labour about five points behind - by no means way out of line with voting surveys at all (and actually helping to suggest that polls are still overstating Labour, but that's another story). 

Just to give you another yardstick, during the same four month period in 2011, Labour secured about a five per cent swing in their favour, a figure that went up to seven per cent when we just look at contests that had last been fought in 2010 (you can play with all the numbers here if you like). Now we do know that Labour were coming from a lower base at that point, but it wasn't vastly lower because both 2010 and 2015 were General Election years when Labour could rely on getting out their vote. The by-election swing in early 2011 suggested that Labour were five or six points ahead of the Conservatives; they actually ended up a point behind them in the local elections held that year. So our chosen performance indicator here again, in the end, flattered them. 

All this is why local election gurus Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher think that Labour will do quite badly in the upcoming local elections. They might lose 150 or so seats and go backwards in Opposition - something that's only happened twice (again, in the 1980s) in recent non-General Election years. Rallings and Thrasher by the way also utilise their key wards methodology to argue that Labour are progressively falling away in these local by-elections, not picking up - as they once did, during 2011, under Mr Miliband. Other respected analysts back up their case. 

Labour are way behind their 2011 polling scores in terms of the Welsh Assembly elections (though their Westminster numbers are not quite as bad), and are really, really struggling to keep their heads above water in Scotland. If all of this analysis means anything at all, they are in retreat pretty much everywhere. Only in London are they doing well, though apparently there are last-minute jitters over Sadiq Khan's chances even here (we think he'll win easily). The retreat is looking rather less rapid and ragged at the moment, but it's still a retreat: the very small number of competitive London marginal seats will do very little to buoy Labour in May 2020.

So let's update our seats analysis. In November, we thought that Labour might win only somewhere between 145 and 190 seats (on new boundaries) at the next General Election. In January, that number was not particularly changed: it had got to between 153 and 178. Now? Well, if we look at the likely local election results that Rallings and Thrasher project, we can probably expect a ten or eleven-point deficit between Labour and the Conservatives in 2020 (£). That might see Labour defeated, on a uniform swing, by something like 40% to 29%. On old boundaries, that would give us an overall Conservative advantage in the House of Commons totalling about 50, and Labour losing perhaps 20 seats to fall to a range of 210-215. On new boundaries, that looks a bit worse: a Conservative majority of perhaps between 80 and 90, with Labour returning only 190 MPs.

If, on the other hand, we apply the extent to which Labour's vote has fallen between this point in previous Parliaments to the next national contest (and adjusting for poll error, on the same basis as our previous entries in this series), the numbers suggest that there will be a fall of 7.9% from here (Labour's ratings have never risen from this point in a Parliament to polling day), with a range of 16.9% (between 1980 and the 1983 Conservative landslide) and just 0.4% (between 1993 and 1997, a time during which Labour's numbers were supported by the ascent to power of a certain Tony Blair). Let's subtract 1.7% off all those numbers, as we did last time - the average amount by which the polls have overstated Labour on election day itself, and thus a necessary correction to get at something like the 'true' polling number that actually reflected its standing between elections. So, if the past is anything to go on, there might be a 6.2% decline from here: a polling average of 33.6% right now would become 27.4%. If we do no more than give the Conservatives just one point of this ex-Labour share on top of their 2015 General Election score - a very limited concession to them, given the history of government recoveries from mid-term - this suggests very similar results to our rough forecast from local election numbers: Conservative majorities of about 60 or 90 on the two different electoral maps, with Labour hovering just above, or some way under, 200 seats.

That's why you know in your heart that - if nothing changes, as change it might well - Labour still looks very likely to be defeated in 2020. It's hard to imagine, right now, how the Government could be in more disarray. But the Conservatives are still, on average, ahead, while the bookmakers will at the time of writing quote you only a 15% change of a Labour government. That doesn't seem too far away from reality.

So Labour's doing a bit better. They've moved on from the previous absolutely horrific state of affairs, and a predicted electoral slaughter, to just a really bad and resounding defeat. Our sustained look at historic statistics now moves them up 35-40 or so seats. Their losses on these numbers might now range between 20 and 50. But losses it still seems likely that there will be, even if their better polling at the moment doesn't prove to be a bubble born only of the Government's sixth-year unpopularity.

Maybe we're wrong. Maybe all of this is just a figment of statistical reality. But we now have a real test to hand: a huge number of local, national, Police Commissioner and Mayoral elections that will tell us if all this is right. Maybe Labour will do well - especially in the English local elections - pushing ahead, winning seats and outstripping the Conservative vote share by more than just a couple of points. We're about to get a really strong signal. Reader, we can't wait.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Labour's not-so-simple mission in May: just push forward, anywhere

Note: a slightly different version of this piece first appeared on the New Statesman 'Staggers' blog, as 'Labour's Task in May: Move Forwards' (15 April 2016).

Early May’s huge electoral tests are now nearly upon us. They remain, however, shrouded by claim and counter-claim within Labour ranks as to what the results will actually mean. Labour’s old Centre and Right, still nothing like reconciled to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Party, contend that Labour must make several hundred gains in English local government, in line with historic averages, even to hope of salvaging something from the next General Election. Mr Corbyn’s defenders say that any rise in the Party’s vote from its disastrous performance in May 2015 (when the party gained a 31.2% share of the vote outside Northern Ireland) would itself point to progress.

There seems to be slightly more consensus surrounding the outcome elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Both sides in Labour’s internal debates are braced for widespread losses in Scotland, but Labour’s parlous situation there is clearly the product of many years of deep-seated Labour decay and Nationalist advance. The position in Wales, where Labour and the Conservatives are both under threat from an insurgent United Kingdom Independence Party, is rather less clear, but alienation from all forms of ‘established’ politics, and the effect of the approaching referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, are clearly again here factors beyond Labour’s immediate control.

So what is likely to happen, and what is a good test of Labour’s electoral performance at the moment? We can start with opinion polling and local by-election performances since Mr Corbyn was elected Labour leader, and then build up a likely picture from there. Neither have been very good at all: indeed, Labour polling was absolutely dreadful until the Conservatives’ self-inflicted implosion of the last month or so, starting with the issue of disability welfare payments in the Budget, and then taking in divisions over Europe, the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith, the potential closure of the Tata steel works in South Wales and then the embarrassing revelations contained in the Panama Papers. Now, Labour’s numbers have got a little better: they are ‘only’ 3.8% behind the Conservatives if we take each pollsters’ last numbers into account. In February, they were an average of 8.4% behind, while at this point in the last Parliament Ed Miliband’s Labour Party actually led the Conservatives by something like 5%. But in local by-elections held every Thursday, they have as yet shown very little progress: in this calendar year, and in contests where we can compare Labour and Conservative vote shares with the last time the ward was fought, the Labour vote is down about 2% on the last Parliament, with a 1% or so swing to the Conservatives.

None of this is particularly encouraging, and the acknowledged experts in this field, Michael Thrasher and Colin Rallings from Plymouth University, think that Labour might lose about 150 English council seats in May. Labour’s very recent and somewhat marked progress in the polls might allow them to do rather better than this, and the local pattern will actually be as interesting as the headline results. In 2012, UKIP hugely underperformed on its share of the popular vote where they fielded candidates (about 13%): but they gained hardly any councillors, and made no net gain in seats. That is likely to be very different this time, and UKIP might hurt Labour – either by gaining seats themselves, or allowing the Conservatives to do so – in areas where their intervention seems to have greatly reduced the Labour vote in 2015: Harlow, Plymouth, Southampton and Thurrock. Elsewhere, Labour will face tough challenges from the Conservatives in tightly-contested councils such as Crawley and Redditch, while if by-elections and detailed polling are any guide, Labour might have a rather better night in smaller, radical and heavily student-focused cities such as Cambridge, Norwich, Oxford and Exeter. A poor night even here would perhaps be the greatest cause for concern.

Bear in mind here that performance in such elections is an enormously powerful indicator – perhaps one of the most powerful signals – of the next General Election’s actual result. Matt Singh of Number Cruncher Politics reckons that a Labour defeat on the scale Rallings and Thrasher project would mean, on historic trends, a 2020 Labour loss to the Conservatives by something like 10%. On a uniform swing, that would mean a Conservative majority in a ‘reformed’ 600-seat House of Commons of something like 70 or 80, Labour having been reduced to no more than 200 seats in that slightly smaller House. Only twice in modern times – 1982 and 1985, both years in which Labour could fairly be described as in disarray – have Oppositions lost seats in local elections during non-General Election years. No Opposition in that time has ever made a net loss of seats and then gone on to win the subsequent General Election. If Labour really does make more than a hundred losses – by no means a certainty – then the Party should be very worried indeed.

The picture is if anything worse in Scotland, and the debacle of 2014-15 seems not to have receded. Labour’s move to the Left there, advocating tax rises to mitigate the impact of ‘Tory austerity’, has done little to counter the Scottish National Party’s dominance of Scottish civil society as well as the mantle of calm, competent, centrist good governance. The last three polls in Scotland give us an average of SNP 53%, Labour 20% and the Conservatives 16% on the constituency-only vote: enough, when combined with the regional list numbers, to give Labour only 26 seats, down eleven even on their 2011 drubbing – and involving the loss of all of their constituency MSPs. Though Labour will probably just beat the Conservatives to second place and the status of official Opposition, that result is not assured: results from the latest YouGov poll would probably give the Scottish Conservatives 24 MSPs, and Labour only 23. Ruth Davidson, the Conservatives’ leader at Holyrood, is popular,confident and making an explicit pitch to be Leader of the Opposition: if she gets her way, it will be yet another devastating blow to Scottish Labour.

In Wales, the latest YouGov Political Barometer poll holds out at least some respite to Labour: they seem unlikely to suffer enormous losses, and indeed over the last couple of months the Conservatives seem to have fallen back quite markedly in this contest. Roger Scully of Cardiff University thinks that Labour might gain 28 or 29 Assembly Members onthese figures, down one or two from 2011. That would be disappointing, though it would not represent as bad a result as 2007, when the Party’s numbers in Cardiff Bay went down to 26 AMs. One caution here, however: in the equivalent poll back in 2011, Labour’s vote was running at 49% for constituency seats, and 44% on the regional list: they actually got 42% and 37% on the day. Now those polling figures are 35% for constituencies and 31% on the list: under-performing their polls to the same extent would see Labour suffering easily its worst Welsh result ever. Carwyn Jones, Labour’s leader in Wales (and YouGov) will hope that nothing like that gap replicates itself this time: recent methodological changes made by the pollster should close some, if not all, of this discrepancy.

Only in London does Labour seem assured of success. Here a strong and flexible campaign from Sadiq Khan (above), distancing himself ever-so-slightly from Mr Corbyn while keeping the latter’s supporters on board, and a lacklustre effort from Zac Goldsmith as the Conservative campaign, seems to have combined with favourable demographics and a membership boom to buoy Labour to victory. The latest polls give Mr Khan a lead of between 8% and 10%: losing this contest would now be a major shock, suggesting that Labour cannot compete even in Mr Corbyn’s metropolitan heartland. Winning London back from a certain Boris Johnson will give Labour something real to cheer, whatever happens elsewhere. As Londoners seem to have warmed to Mr Khan over the last few months, so Labour’s leader has seemed rather more secure in his job.

When you strip away all the complexity, Labour actually has a very simple task: to move forward on 2011, and the equivalent moment in the last Parliament, and on 2012, when the English local elections were last fought in these same areas. Only then can the Party show that it is anything like on course to even be part of the next government.

Standing still is not much of an option. If they can somehow scrabble to the same number of AMs, MSPs and councillors as last time, they will be demonstrating that they may be able to hold the line and avoid a reallybad defeat in 2020, but no more. If they do even worse and go backwards overall, and their representation falls back everywhere outside London, this will only serve to confirm what polling evidence and local by-elections have been telling us all along: that the Labour Party is on course for a very bad defeat in the next General Election.

That outcome is hardly inevitable, as the last few weeks have demonstrated. It is not even really clear that the data we have so far makes it very likely, rather than just probable. That’s why May represents such a good test, and its results such a good signpost.

Some retreat in Scotland and Wales seems extremely likely. That makes England, where most of Labour’s target seats are anyway, into the real battleground. If Labour can gain between 150 and 250 new councillors there, some cautious optimism will certainly be permissible. If we wake up on 6 May to very small Labour gains in the English local elections, only registering in double figures, Labour is just treading water. If the story mostly involves Labour losses, even given Mr Khan’s likely win in London, that will be clearest warning sign yet that the worst forebodings of Mr Corbyn’s detractors may yet come true.

Monday, 11 April 2016

UK Labour: can it think its way out of trouble?

Note: this piece first appeared in Disclaimer online, as 'Labour's Best Move Now? Stop Shouting, and Start Thinking' (8 April 2016).

The UK Labour Party does a lot of shouting these days. Its leadership does a lot of bellowing about cuts and austerity. About the undoubted cruelty and unfairness of many welfare state ‘reforms’ that appear designed only to humiliate and distress millions of people in real need. About Welsh steel and the decline of British manufacturing. About those ‘evil Tories’, always and forever fixated on privatising the National Health Service, slashing local services and cutting taxes for the wealthy while they salt away their own millions in offshore tax havens.

Meanwhile, those Labour people who are out of temper with the new-old age of Jeremy Corbyn spend their time shouting back, detailing with precision all the presentational and conceptual blunders of their leader’s darkly semi-comic turns in the spotlight, pointing out just how perilous their party’s position in local by-elections and opinion polls now is, how intellectually irrelevant Labour has become, how incoherent their spending plans can look, and overall what an unimpressive shower they resemble.

If the UK is to have the competent Opposition that it deserves, and Labour is to hang on as a competitive electoral force outside inner urban areas in England and Wales, all this will have to change. There’s no point shouting about those hated Tories if you don’t have a coherent plan about what you would do in their place; there is, on the other hand, equally little mileage in just laying into Mr Corbyn every time he puts a foot wrong. He’s never done anything like this in his life. He’s not very good at it. But in a few years, he’ll be gone. Even if he’s soon swapped for a like-for-like replacement in the shape of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, this moment will pass quickly. The few years of this Parliament are a blink of an eye in the history of Britain’s competitive two-party electoral system, which took on its final shape as long ago the beginning of the nineteenth century. He is a poor receptacle for Labour centrists’ frustration.

If they are to retain their shape into the 2020s, and say anything useful in the interim, Labour must look to nurture and renew its ideas – and build up some concrete policy proposals that stand four-square on deeper morals, feelings and emotions. The party’s refuseniks and dissidents, in particular, will have to do a lot more hard work. If you’re critical of Mr Corbyn, what would you do instead? If you don’t like John McDonnell, what would you say in his stead?

The different non-Corbynite factions in the Party can in shorthand best be understood as Milibandite, Brownite and Blairite fragments along the lines represented so unimpressively in the 2015 leadership election by Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall – with perhaps a few already-unimpressed Left and Soft Left members already defecting from Mr Corbyn thrown in for good measure. What they all have in common is an iron-hard (and in all probability entirely correct) certainty that the party will be routed in a General Election if it continues along its present trajectory. But that won’t be enough to convince members to give one of ‘their’ candidates another shot at the leadership. It won’t rejuvenate the actual politics of choice and commitment on the Left, create a sense of excitement or commitment, or summon up a programme that will bring Labour people on board with a nuanced programme in keeping with the Party’s past history. Only new ideas from the mainstream of post-Second World War Labour’s social democratic past will do that.

So here’s a few suggestions for where they might go with this. Just for fun, as it were – a bit like watching Peter Snow push his by-election swingometer around all those years ago. Just to show what the Labour Centre and Right should be trying to articulate: a first stab at a new agenda for the future, rather than a New Labour past that most are genuinely (and rightly) proud of, but that ran out of steam at some point between the Second Iraq War and Brown’s tortuous time as Prime Minister.

Two areas for advance concern the worsening position of young people in this society. If you’re British and under 35, things look verygrim for you indeed. The high marginal rates that follow the taking on of student loans, very high house prices and extremely unfair intergenerational tax and benefit policies are combining to threaten the very viability of making a good and fulfilling life in the UK – especially in the South-East of England.

The last six years of Coalition and Conservative government have enormously privileged older Britons, to an extent that is now long past justified. Richer, older British citizens should now be asked to bear their part of a future Labour government’s deficit-reducing efforts. The Party should look urgently at abolishing the higher rates of pension tax relief, ameasure that would raise £6-7bn annually. The Chancellor, George Osborne, just backed away from just such a reform, a major strategic error in his and Prime Minister David Cameron’s efforts to build a so-called compassionate Conservatism. Such a move on Labour’s part would allow university students’ grant and bursaries to be brought back, and interest rates on loans to be reduced – a far more redistributive and progressive move than abolishing tuition fees. Much-missed Educational Maintenance Allowances could be restored; Further Education spending on post-16 training cease its ruinous retreat. This would at least constitute a start to redressing our ridiculous policy emphasis on older people, cynically built into our present political dispensation just because those people vote much more than young people do.

Any such concerted move against young people’s increasing economic and social isolation can, however, only work in conjunction with a truly vast shock-and-awe housing programme that would aim to double housebuilding output over two Parliaments and to redress the country’s now-historic imbalance of supply and demand. This will need a jump-start far beyond this government’s risible attempts at building up new ‘communities’, so obviously inadequate at growth points such as Ebbesfleet. An incoming Labour government should take a leaf out of their post-war colleagues’ book and build a new generation of high-density, high-quality New Towns (above), most of which would – this time – be returned to the private sector at maturity and help pay for the whole endeavour. The relative success of East London’s Olympic regeneration could be a model here.

Next should come an absolutely fundamental, cascading and massive transfer of power out of Whitehall and Westminster to Britain’s city-regions – again, a programme that in its range and ambition should dwarf the Northern Powerhouse that Mr Osborne has got away with claiming as his own for far too long. There should be hard and scarcely-reachable target for a fixed share of all government spending to be determined outside central government. Entirely new functions (small scale local energy production and grids; the development of public and private co-operatives; the further encouragement of grassroots participatory democracy; the localisation of skills training) should be encouraged among the new city-regional governments that are emerging. The best example of what this might mean would be to set Britain’s cities free on the US model, allowing cities to raise much more capital themselves via bonds, standing for instance behind the construction of a proper East-West link from Liverpool to Hull (especially between Manchester and Leeds) that would allow growth there truly to counterbalance London. Bristol needs a tram system and a proper rapid light rail network, and Southampton and Portsmouth need their own metro system – all along the lines that now seem to be taking shape in Cardiff and South Wales. A really massive housing drive is going to need a much denser public transport grid: localisation and regionalisation, far from fragmenting efforts, would be one way to provide it.

These are just three examples of how Labour might start manoeuvring around its present impasse, and start once more on the deployment of radical but practical ideas. Many more come to mind immediately: a properly integrated youth and youth justice service; a really decent elderly care service paid for via collective insurance, with payments from estates capped at far lower levels than they are now; a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the City, to help rebuild public trust in the banking system. Only with such new tools can Labour rebuild the sense of hope that Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair were able to embody in 1945, 1964 and 1997. Mr Corbyn seems to have very little sense of where he is going in this arena – he spends his time, instead, emitting a long wail of despair about capitalism. Mr McDonnell is trying much harder, surrounding himself with progressive economic advisers that are indeed thinking about how to foster productivity and growth in hard times. But that project, too, seems somehow too cramped and inadequate for the socialist task ahead. The two men’s opponents, both inside the party’s administrative machinery and the Parliamentary Labour Party, also seem bereft of novel plans and programmes, despite early signs of policy renaissance among Labour’s many ginger groups: while that remains the case, their internal opposition will continue to fall on deaf ears.

Basically, it is long past the time to stop shouting: to start summoning up a little bit of hope and a lot more thought. Will it happen? It seems unlikely for now. But until it does, only a long period of Conservative hegemony stretches ahead. 

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Ten days that put Britain near the Brexit

Whatever your view of Britain's relationship with the European Union, there now seems no doubt that Britons might vote to leave in June. It's a possibility. Last year, when 'Remain' was racking up massive double-digit leads in telephone polls, and while Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne rode high in confidence and political capital, that looked a remote prospect. But now? Now they might, just might, decide to tear up half a century of economic rewiring and geopolitical strategy - walking out of the door and into a very, very uncertain future. How can this be, when what we know about their underlying attitudes to the EU tells us that they quite like the whole idea, in the abstract? How did we come to stand near the Brexit?

We've been reflecting a lot on the role of structure and agency in history recently, and this most convulsive change will need structural explanations in time (these will probably focus in part, on a generalised revolt against political and expert 'elites', and the poisonous misinformation pumped out by the British press). But chance has played a role too, and the most important choice and change in the past two British generations - one of the most important days in the country's whole history - is down to a conglomeration of accidents and emergencies as well. Here are ten days that we think brought us to the point where UK citizens may decide on an act of self-harm on the grand scale.

The election that never was, 6 October 2007. For a while, Labour ex-Chancellor Gordon Brown could do no wrong as Prime Minister. He seemed gruff, grave, serious and competent - a contrast many voters found refreshing after the actorly Tony Blair had left the scene. But he blew that all away when he let his lieutenants speculate about an early election that he then ran away from when his private polling told him he'd only be able to gain a smaller majority than Mr Blair had enjoyed. From that moment on, his authority shot, Mr Brown could only ward off the inevitable Conservative (or Conservative-led) government, rather than fight for a majority in his own right. Under New Labour, the only question was how European the UK would be. Would it join the free movement Schengen Area? Might it, one day, even join the Euro? The possibilities were there. Instead, Labour would give way to a party, and a Prime Minister, who were much more sceptical about the whole project.

Nick Clegg decides to go into coalition with the Conservatives, 12 May 2010. Mr Cameron didn't win in May 2010. He captured only a rather unimpressive 36% of the vote, and 306 seats. He needed a partner if he was to get back into power. He found one in Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, figurehead of the most pro-European party in British politics, and was able to form a remarkably stable and orderly two-party government that lasted for the full five years of a Parliament. The Liberal Democrats were able to block any talk of a Euro-referendum in that term, though not to hold back the populist surge that brought the United Kingdom Independence Party to such prominence. But they did allow Mr Cameron to form a 'proper' government, from which position of power he later announced that he would allow an in/ out European referendum.

UKIP's record local election results, 3 May 2012. Labour did well in the 2012 local elections, held in the wake of George Osborne's first (and notorious) 'Omnishambles' Budget, a financial package as chaotic as it was misguided - cutting the highest rate of income tax and racking up charges on pasties and caravans. But arguably even more ominous for the Conservatives was the rise of its apparent rival on the Right: UKIP gained 13% of the vote and, although its diffuse support was not very well targeted, went on to do even better and gain a quarter of the votes in the county council elections held a year later. Conservative MPs took fright; the right-wing coalition of wealthy free marketeers and patriotic blue collar workers that Mrs Thatcher had assembled in the 1980s (and Mr Cameron was attempting to tack back together) appeared to be at risk. They upped their anti-European rhetoric, and their pressure on the Prime Minister to 'do something' on Europe.

Boris Johnson re-elected as Mayor of London, 3 May 2012. That same day, Conservative maverick, eccentric and egotist Boris Johnson got back into City Hall by the Thames - just (above). He only won by three per cent, having led most of the polls by a much larger margin, on a night when Labour advanced rapidly across the country and did pretty well in the London Assembly elections. He should have been beaten. He could have been beaten - shattering for ever the myth of invincibility that has helped to cover up his many blunders and evasions. Instead, Labour ran ex-Mayor Ken Livingstone against him, 'Mr London' in his heyday, but surely not the best of candidates when he had already served two terms as Mayor himself and actually been beaten in 2008 by Mr Johnson. Boris was left to prosper - and to seem influential when he really, really should not be. So when he came out for Brexit in February, it seemed like an important moment. Had he lost in 2012, it would just have amounted to the musings of a long-beaten backbencher.

David Cameron's Bloomberg speech, 23 January 2013. All of this piled pressure onto David Cameroon - from his restive backbenchers, looking over their shoulders at the threat from UKIP, from dissatisfied small-c 'conservative' voters in the party's blue heartlands, and from his unprincipled rival and frenemy at City Hall. So he buckled and announced an 'in or out' referendum in January 2013. It was entirely and only designed to hold his party together, and to get through a General Election that he had only a very, very small chance of winning outright. Then he could just junk the whole idea as part of a renewed coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats, and blame Nick Clegg when his subalterns took to the airwaves to attack him for his lack of scruple. Who needs scruples anyway, when you have power? Unfortunately for Mr Cameron, he was being too clever by half: he had comprehensively outsmarted himself.

Douglas Carwell defects to UKIP, 28 August 2014. Mr Cameron's concessions didn't soothe the Eurosceptic beast that stalks the heart of his party. Nothing ever does: and until Britain looks like a great big Singapore, shorn of its troublesome welfare state, shot of Scotland, and without any borders at all as a freetrading exemplar of a laissez-faire sharpshooter, nothing - absolutely nothing - ever will. So the Prime Minister's MPs even began to defect to UKIP, calling by-elections and winning them (another MP, Mark Reckless, soon followed Mr Carswell, though he lost his seat in the 2015 General Election). Up went UKIP's authority; down went the Prime Minister's stock. And all the time the idea of a Brexit - hitherto a background drumbeat of an isolated cause - began to look more and more credible and popular.

The Conservative Party wins a majority, 6 May 2015. Most of us in the know always knew that the Conservatives were going to be the biggest party back in May. We always suspected that Mr Cameron would be able to go on - somehow winning the confidence of enough MPs to continue as Prime Minister. You read it here first, right? What was genuinely surprising, and what shocked even No. 10 itself, was the workable overall majority that the Conservatives were able to gain. Capitalising on Labour's lack of leadership and economic credibility and the Liberal Democrats' perceived untrustworthiness, and tapping into a deeply-felt and passionately-expressed anti-Scottish Nationalist feeling in England, Mr Cameron could now govern alone. Now he probably wishes that he hadn't won that overall majority, because its very existence might cause his premiership to end in ignominy.

Jeremy Corbyn is elected Labour leader, 12 September 2015. The Labour Party's reaction to its electoral mauling was to turn to an obscure backbencher who had never held any kind of front-bench position at all, and indeed who came bottom of the ballot of MPs when he last ran for the Shadow Cabinet. One problem with this for the EU 'inners' is that Mr Corbyn has a long, long history of Euro-scepticism, opposing for instance  the Maastricht Treaty that brought the modern EU into being in the early 1990s, and voting himself to leave the EU in the UK's previous referendum in 1975. He has had to campaign for a 'Remain' vote this time, or risk all hell breaking lose in his Parliamentary party - as well as an enormous row with the members who back him with such fervour, but also think that Britain should stay in the EU. But he seems to have decided to say almost nothing about it, beyond grumbling about the lack of a 'social Europe' and releasing a couple of videos. Plenty of commentators think that he is the 'Out' campaign's secret weapon. There can be no route to a 'Remain' victory that does not go through Labour voters, and a huge slice of the electorate appear to have no idea at all where the party stands on Europe. That's a massive problem for the pro-EU campaign, and perhaps a decisive one.

Michael Gove backs Brexit, 20 February 2016. Michael Gove's opposition to the EU is a long-standing matter of publicly-stated principle. It is in a different order to Mr Johnson's absurd opportunism. The Justice Secretary is merely stating what he has always thought. But what his essay in favour of Brexit did was open the floodgates to Conservative opposition to the Prime Minister's stance on renegotiation. He made opposition credible and intellectually at least respectable, expanding its base from the far right of his party and outwards from relatively unknown or unpopular figures such as the (now ex-) Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel, a Minister from the same Department. He gave Boris cover to lope along behind him. He allowed an alternative government, headed by Mr Johnson and with Mr Gove as Chancellor, to spring rather blearily into being. But most of all, he shattered the illusion that the Conservative Party and the Government were mostly united, with perhaps a few exceptions around the edges - thus giving Conservative voters every justification for defecting from their normal loyalty to the Prime Minister. Of all the moments listed here, this was one of the most decisive.

George Osborne's Budget from Hell, 16 March 2016. What was he thinking? How could he have got it all so wrong? When he could and should have announced the most boring Budget in history, tinkering a bit here and there to clear the decks for the referendum campaign, Mr Osborne chose to reduce Personal Independence Payments for disabled welfare recipients while cutting Capital Gains Tax and raising personal income tax thresholds for better-off Britons. It was a bone-headed decision, entirely at odds with the Prime Minister's rhetoric about helping poorer citizens that he had unveiled at the 2015 Conservative Party Conference. Voters' confidence in the Government, already falling as the shine came off their re-election and economic growth seemed to slow, went into free fall. Labour are in such a state that they won't benefit much: but Brexiteers will. The Prime Minister's own credibility is now in deep danger, as the Government loses momentum and struggles over the possible closure of the Tata steel plant in South Wales and the release of a massive batch of offshore tax-avoidance details from Panama: he runs the risk of retreating in public esteem in the same manner as Mr Brown in 2007, just at the moment when he needs to convince the public of his case for staying in the EU. The whole picture allows opportunistic Brexiteers to lay into the government overall, over anything and everything - saying, for instance, that they'll 'stand up' to China, or bring in steel tariffs and subsidies (even though they won't).

There they are: the ten days that have put Britain near the European exit door. Each one avoidable, each one fightable: if the friends of the European ideal, and of Britain's better interests and angels, had been on their guard and mettle. They weren't. They rarely are. So Britain is now spinning dangerously into the unknown, flirting with a strategic transformation that will end up who knows where, and who knows why.

Editorial note: this blogpost was originally published under the title 'Eight days that put Britain near the Brexit'. It has since been edited to include two more that spring to mind - the election of Jeremy Corbyn and the announcement that Michael Gove would back leaving the EU.